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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Firefighters ponder their next move
By John Thorne
BBC North of England Corrrespondent

Salford firefighters
Frustration has grown at Salford as more firefighters are suspended
There's something semi-armed services about the formal start of a firefighting shift.

Standing at ease behind their personal fireproof suits and yellow protective helmets, the men of Green Watch at Salford Fire Station were officially clocked on to duty this morning.

Then, parade dismissed, they began the regular start-of-watch checks on their firefighting equipment: the hoses, the ladders and their appliances.

This fire station in Greater Manchester has become the focal point of an eruption of bitter, angry industrial trouble.

Growing frustration

Trouble that's clearly been bubbling under the surface ever since the fire strike was settled in June last year with a less than perfectly watertight agreement, where staged payrises would be exchanged for a process of modernisation in the fire service.

Paul Gudgeon, 34 years a firefighter, is one of the suspended Salford nightshift crew.

"They want to decimate this service," he says. "The managers keep demanding more and more and it's gone too far."

If they pay us, we'll ride the new anti-terrorist appliances we've trained for
Ian Johnson, Salford firefighter and FBU representative

He now sits at home without pay, one of a growing list of Greater Manchester firefighters who have refused to sign an undertaking to work what the management are calling "normal duties".

The frustration and bitterness between senior officers and rank and file is growing as more firefighters are suspended.

The Salford firefighters say it is victimisation of a station identified as particularly militant by the fire authority.

Game of chess

Ian Johnson, the Salford station commander and Fire Brigades Union representative, says the employers only have to implement the backdated payrises.

"If they pay us, we'll ride the new anti-terrorist appliances that we've trained for - it's that simple in the end."

Incident Response Unit
Crews in Salford refused to use new anti-terror equipment

Barry Dixon, the beleaguered chief officer in Greater Manchester, insists his policy is fair and consistent.

But the dispute is deepening.

The Manchester men have national sympathy among other firefighters.

And at their canalside union offices in Eccles, in a terrace flanked by a chip shop and a kebab takeaway, the local officials are planning their next industrial move.

Perhaps a ballot of the 2,000 firefighters in the Greater Manchester area to consider official strike action.

In a sense, it's all like a game of chess - each management move countered by a union response, and vice versa.

To an outsider the manoeuvres don't seem too constructive - often defensive or pedantic, and bureaucratic.

But both sides are fighting a publicity campaign as well, determined to demonstrate through the TV cameras and radio microphones that this emergency service is commanded or manned by principled people of deep differences but integrity.

Both sides are dedicated to keeping the public safe from fire, flood and the threat of terrorism.

The BBC's Catherine Marston
"Firefighters say new changes would put lives a risk"

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